Vineyard Labor and the Law

Speakers at wine industry's biggest gathering tackle tough immigration issues

by Kate Lavin
Sacramento, Calif.—Speakers representing human resources, academia and California agriculture exchanged ideas about vineyard labor this morning, and a comment from Mike Carlton, director of the labor division for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, summarized the overall message: “If you don’t make your voice heard, no one will listen."

Carlton was one of four panelists who spoke today during the first general session of the 2011 Unified Wine & Grape Symposium. Although the session was billed in the Unified program as “Needed: People,” it could just as well have been called “How Immigration Affects Farm Owners.”

Dr. Philip Martin of the University of California, Davis, a professor of agriculture and resource economics, told an audience of more than 150 people that farm labor is the first job that many immigrants do upon moving to the United States. Up to 50% of farm laborers are unauthorized, and about one in six workers have been in the country for less than a year. For vineyard owners, these high turnover rates can translate into increased time spent training, and lower productivity.

A fundamental shift
For many, the need for a competent and experienced workforce is reason enough to reconsider immigration, but Carlton and Martin contend that a small but vociferous group of anti-immigration leadership is dominating the conversation in Washington, D.C., and the cries of those groups have made it unlikely that Congress will address comprehensive immigration reform within the next two years.

“Ten percent of Americans say immigration is the No. 1 problem today,” Martin said. “It’s a small group of people, but they make a lot of noise.”

Carlton added that many congressional representatives understand the position winegrape growers and other farmers are in, “But for every one of us that visits them, there are 100 anti-immigrant (constituents) doing the same thing.

“For us it’s a business issue—for them, it’s emotional,” Carlton said of anti-immigration groups. “They’re not worried about you taking jobs away from their children, because they don’t expect their children to be working in agriculture.”

He encouraged growers to write letters, make phone calls and make a point of meeting their representatives in person, rather than relying on grower associations to lobby for them Washington. “When the grower talks, they sit up and listen.”

California Grape & Tree Fruit League (CGTFL) president Barry Bedwell echoed that statement, saying, “Your voice as a constituent is always more powerful than the paid representative.…Someone who is out there every day making a living, it absolutely makes all the difference in the world.”

Agriculture: a national security issue
Bedwell took the connection between immigration and lawmakers one step further, saying the topic has been “hijacked by politics.” While the membership of CGTFL is overwhelmingly comprised of devout conservatives, Republican lawmakers in Washington are inflexible about the issue.

“I get weary talking to lawmakers about the security of the food supply, and they agree and then vote ‘no’ on immigration reform,” Bedwell said. “If this is truly a national security issue, shouldn’t we be doing more to treat people fairly who work in that system?...Your food supply is at risk.”

Card check returns
Another political issue facing California farmers—this one back for the fifth time in a row—is known as the “card check” bill. If made into law, SB104 would do away with the secret ballot election that is currently part of forming workers’ bargaining units. Bedwell said the bill also would move voting to a location outside the workplace.

Once again, Bedwell encouraged growers to be in touch with their elected officials in Sacramento. “In a state like California, the messenger is as important as the message,” he said.

Back at home
The conversation about immigration extends beyond politics and into the vineyard, said session moderator Yesenia Plascencia. While many employers think they are covering all the bases by providing materials in English and Spanish, more and more workers who come to the United States for farm work speak Mexican dialects rather than conventional Spanish. The discrepancy not only makes communication difficult, it calls into question the accuracy of how your message is translated by a select few to the masses.

Unified coverage
Wines & Vines is reporting about the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium all week. Check back tomorrow for news about the State of the Industry, featuring remarks from Patty Saldivar, Danny Brager, Nat DiBuduo and Francesca Schuler.
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